This is an invited tasting. Much gratitude to the hosts and fellow tasters.
How can you tell when a cuisine, imported from somewhere, has truly seeped into the local culture? I somehow don’t think it’s just a matter of commonness. For example, there is no lack of Korean joints in Singapore now, but they revolve around a few general tropes – there’s fried chicken, gui or grill, and the classic dishes – bibimbap, jjigae, samgyetang. It’s a promising start, but we have yet to look into the differences between the different regions of Korea.
Japanese food, on the other hand, is a lot more established. And this is why Torikin is intriguing to me; it is another piece in the movement of Singapore’s Japanese food away from the general and into the specific. Torikin does have the usual offerings on its menu, but its unique sell is in the food of Hakata, in Fukuoka, and most of all its hotpots – the mizutaki chicken pot, and the motsunabe, made with beef offal.
At the tasting, Torikin decided that they would serve the mizutaki right at the end, but this dish deserves to be talked about first. Chicken is first boiled without seasoning in a pot for hours, until everything – fat, collagen, the works – is rendered into something like aspic; then the jelly is melted into broth for the soup base. This isn’t new in Singapore – there’s Tsukada Nojo’s Bijin-nabe, for instance, which even shows you the wobbly chunks being melted down. But Torikin’s claim that they proffer just the essence of chicken is a lot more credible – the soup is much lighter and subtler. Almost tasteless on first contact, the chicken’s fragrance spreads slowly and goes a long way.
Service, too, is far more attentive in Torikin’s hotpot experience. For this is no slovenly, ‘just shove it all in’ experience; there are steps, a ritual to follow. First the chunks of Sakura chicken – chosen for its similarity to the free-range chickens used back in Japan – are fished out from the broth and served. While they look pale, a little ponzu is all it takes to bring them to life.
After the chicken comes tsukune, meatballs formed on the spot with lightly seasoned chicken and a little gristle for interest, and vegetables – tofu, carrots, negi and cabbage – to further sweeten and deepen the stock. When the time finally came to mix cooked rice and eggs into the remaining stock to make a porridge, we were already pretty gorged. And yet all of us still finished it, the broth unintrusive but persistent, coating the tongue smoothly.
Taken by itself, the mizutaki is enough of a show. But Torikin has plenty other things on offer as well. The tonpeiyaki is a Kyushu rendition of a Kansai classic, okonomiyaki, which eschews the light batter and noodles. Instead, beneath the weave of tonkatsu sauce and tangy mayo is a layer of pork belly, followed by shredded cabbage that retains all the juices from the pork above. It is perhaps the most boldly flavoured dish at the tasting, and even then it is well-balanced, the cabbage moist and still vegetable-sweet.
Hitokuchi gyoza – ‘one mouth dumplings’, literally – are miniaturised and filled with chicken and negi, though ‘filled’ is perhaps a little too kind; there really is just a tiny ball of the meat within. Mind, with the crisp, wheat-fragrant skin, it’s pleasant enough; it just doesn’t quite match the expectation of an ideal gyoza with a thin skin holding plenty. The yuzu chilli paste that comes with this, though, is a pleasure with a burn that hangs around the back of the mouth.
Oden is a dish of different consistencies – egg, tofu, konnyaku and fishcake in several shapes – all infused with the same flavour; Torikin’s rendition is restrained in the flavour, using a light dashi stock that doesn’t interfere too much with the ingredients’ original flavours. Konnyaku is springy and most resistant to the stock; other standouts include a triangle of something almost fluffy, which turns out to be surimi mixed with egg whites, and kinchaku – pouches of tofu skin holding in vegetables stewed to tenderness.
Even in the desserts and drinks, Torikin works to bring something new, for example in their two-tone beer cocktails with Asahi floating atop a fruit juice. The Kyoho grape flavour is my favourite, and I should know, I tried a few. At the very end of the meal we are given a real palate-cleanser in the form of a sour, taut yuzu sorbet, and karinto manju. The server apologises for having only one of the manju in stock by that point, but having tried it I can totally see why – it’s a fried, crackling crust, mixed with black sugar, around a thick, clinging red bean heart, a calming signal that the meal is over.
So what a meal it’s been. Again, what I find most attractive about the place is that Torikin brings another sort of ‘authenticity’ to the Japanese food here – it’s very Japanese, but also from a portion of Japan we really should know more about. On the evening of our tasting, we see the best endorsement a restaurant of a foreign cuisine can get; two large groups of Japanese office workers have taken up both private rooms, steadily getting more boisterous (probably also more inebriated) throughout the evening. It wasn’t even the weekend! Then again, there’s no such thing as a right day for food that brings the homeland to mind. I can empathise.
557 Bukit Timah Road
Crown Centre, #01-14/16
Mon – Fri, 6pm – 11pm
Sat – Sun, noon – 3pm, 6pm – 11pm